November 2007 Archives

76 Pumpkin Lane

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Chris Mould
Hodder
0340930748
Sep 2007
One of the joys of reading is the paradox of its at once being so personalised and private and yet holding a base for shared experience and understanding. Few books exemplify this in such a multi-dimensional form as Chris Mould�s astounding new work, �76 Pumpkin Lane� which combines some of the most innovative paper engineering together with Mould�s signature brooding style of building and beings.

A short introductory text places the structure of �76 Pumpkin Lane� into context and provides a tantalising glimpse of the gory and grotesque inhabitants found therein. Character exposition is limited to a scant few details, but this is purposeful, allowing readers to act-out their own stories and scenarios using the figurines included within the setting that Mould has created. Each of ten rooms sport different accessories and accoutrements allowing for imaginative interaction and play. A victory for the delight of visceral fears made visual!


My Dad's a Birdman

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David Almond, ill. Polly Dunbar
Walker Books
1406304867
Oct 2007
Lizzie misses her mother, however, her dad and his quite literal flights of fancy provide plentiful diversion and distraction, as too do Auntie Doreen�s endeavours to normalise the situation that father and daughter find themselves within through her homely domesticity and the cooking of doughy dumplings!

Dad is eager to enter the human bird competition that is due to take place over the river Tyne and which has attracted international interest � �there�s a fella from France that�s screwed wings to his bike. There�s a lass from Japan with a ten foot pogo stick. There�s a bloke from Brazil with an umbrella on his head and a propeller on his bum��

The archetype whereby the child�s inner-imaginative world is constructed as all-embracing is reversed by David Almond in this latest work, where it is Lizzie�s dad � and his obsession with all things fowl and flight � that drive the story and the attempts to find freedom of flight.

Polly Dunbar�s vibrant illustrations make her the perfect illustrator to collaborate on this book. The building blocks of the story will feel familiar with those who have read Almond�s body of work to date, influences from William Blake continue to abound as too does a preoccupation with the human form and flight. Ultimately, however, this is an upbeat and uplifting story that transcends ideas of social norms through realising the importance of the love than underpins all of this.


Chewy, Gooey, Rumble, Plop!

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Steve Alton, ill. Nick Sharratt
Bodley Head
0803732260
Oct 2007
Following the processes of digestion and excretion literally from beginning to end, �The Gooey Chewy, Rumble, Plop Book� is a cavalcade of consumption! Taking as its premise the ingestion of ice-cream � and sporting a highly tactile tongue that can be made to waggle in a most disconcerting manner � the book takes us on a voyage around our extraordinary bodies, highlighting key learning areas such as taste, superb stomach statistics, an amazing account of absorption, and a double-page plop-out that will have readers doubled up with laughter! The joy of this book is the meticulous detail that has been afforded to its production. Innovative paper-engineering together with carefully penned descriptions of the processes encountered as parts of digestion and excretion make this an active � and thereby memorable � learning experience. A victory for the voyage of discovery!


Cleopatra

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Adele Geras, ill. M. P. Robertson
Kingfisher
0753413590
Oct 2007
The reunion of �The Spice Girls� has brought back into common currency their maxim: �Girl Power�. Centuries prior to the historic plight of women�s rights being commodified to a snappy, two-word, slogan, Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt and � with considerable diplomatic powers and prowess � set about forging kinship between Egypt and Rome.

In bringing the story of Cleopatra to life through the eyes of Nefret, a young Egyptian girl who is conscripted to work for the royal household, Adele Geras paints a vivid portrait of this extraordinary, sparkling historical figure. The diary entries of Nefret provide a wealth of colour and detail about Ancient Egypt and � through choosing a first-person narrative told by a girl, Geras easily conveys just what an astoundingly inspirational figurehead Cleopatra must have presented.

Cleopatra�s story links Ancient Egyptian history with that of Ancient Rome, both focal areas in the key-stage two, National Curriculum history syllabus. Production values of the book are incredibly high with M. P. Robertson�s lavish spreads that perfectly capture the movement, tone and time of the period being interspersed with photographic imagery of key historical artefacts. Notes are appended at the end about Alexandria, the Roman army, the river Nile and more, providing valuable factual context to this fictionalised account of Cleopatra�s life.

An accomplished synergy of wonderful writing, illustrative innovation and pride in publishing production values make this a venture that is not to be missed. Whether reading for pleasure or for purpose, this is a tome to be treasured. Look out for Steve Augarde�s �Leonardo da Vinci� which Kingfisher have scheduled for publication in 2008.


Big Ben

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Rachel Anderson, ill. Jane Ray
Barn Owl Books
1903015707
Oct 2007
Matthew has a deep level of care and respect for his elder brother Ben. He endeavours to protect Ben from the types of assumption and stereotype that he is subjected to by neighbours and his peers. The strength in Anderson�s text lies in its awareness that even the best intentions of his brother Matthew, do not really allow Ben�s skills and abilities to shine through and that accordingly, his departure to a residential school tailored to his needs comes as a liberation.

There is a marvellous sense of joyous celebration towards the end of this short book as we see Ben actively engage and participate, at which points he feels valued and worthwhile. The juxtaposition between this and the opening of the books is a testament to Anderson�s very real skills as an author. In a short work she has created an entirely convincing fiction where characters develop and adapt to the circumstances surrounding them and to the altered situations facing one another when interacting.

Praise must go to Barn Owl Books � who have recently faced financial uncertainties � for bringing back into print this brilliant shot novel, first published under the �Mammoth Read� imprint and given a new lease of life with superb new accompanying illustrations by Jane Ray


Mammoth Academy in Trouble

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Neal Layton
Hodder Children's Books
0340930306
Jul 2007
The start of a new term at the Mammoth Academy is immediately greeting by a pledge on the part of the humans from Cave Skool that �We is gonna git you!!�. So it transpires that another epic battle between Mammoth and mankind is initiated.

Arabella�s studious nature leads to her developing �The Sparklebang Code�, this when combined with the Mammoth Mammoth, a giant model that pupils have made at the academy leads to an explosive solution as the humans encroach upon the Academy.

The inimitable and illustrious Layton�s mixed media illustrations perfectly complement the anarchic irreverence of this latest installment about the Mammoths; fun, friendly and furiously fast-paced, readers will find themselves caught in a frenetic race to the feast at the finale!



Lucy Star

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Cathy Cassidy
Puffin Books
0141383267
Aug 2007
Mouse, familiar to readers of Cathy Cassidy�s debut novel, �Dizzy�, makes a reappearance and meets with his counterpart in Cat in this latest novel by Cathy Cassidy. The spirit of egalitarianism alongside soulful attempts at self-expression and personal evolution run through �Lucky Star�. The novel opens as Mouse, Martin Kavanagh, writes a letter to his headteacher, Mr Brown, apologising for the graffiti art he daubed on the school premises. Mr Brown, however, is unconvinced as to the sincerity of the apology.

Following a meeting with his social worker, Mouse bumps into Cat, whom it transpires is a petty shop-lifter. The two of them form an alliance and are able to relate parts of their past to one another.

Together the pair help Mouse�s mother re-establish the Phoenix Centre, the drugs rehabilitation centre in the ironically named �Eden Estate�, following its destruction in an arson attack. Cat and Mouse become convinced that the vicious circle the estate is trapped within can be broken and so they embark upon carrying out vigilante style retribution. Whilst this is, in part, successful, it throws them into the arms of the police whereupon the secrets they have kept concealed from one another are revealed with huge consequences.

The phoenix motif in the novel is particularly apt to this story about rebirth and regrowth. Cathy Cassidy has paired the importance of responsibility against the essential nature of self-expression in this heart-warming, life-affirming tale.



The Snow Goose

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Paul Gallico, ill. Angela Barrett
Hutchinson
0091893828
Oct 2007
Similar in tone and tempo to �Beauty and the Beast� and in feel and form to �Wuthering Heights�, Paul Gallico�s modern-classic, �The Snow Goose� is sumptuously re-defined in this sumptuously produced edition published by Hutchinson.

�The Snow Goose� follows the plight of Philip Rhayader, an artist living out a solitary existence on the Essex Coast. Blighted by a physical deformity that distances him from the society surrounding him, his tenderness and love find purpose only through nurturing injured wild-fowl back to well-health.

An injured snow goose brings the feisty young Frith to Rhayader, and together the two of them nurse the creature. The other-worldly aspect of the Great Marsh is purged by current affairs as news of the war and the situation facing soldiers in Dunkirk spreads. With this, human devastation infiltrates the ebb-and-flow of the natural, wild environs of the marsh.

Rhayader resolves to sail his boat across to Dunkirk whereupon he plans to rescue the soldiers stranded upon the beach. From this point, the remainder of the story becomes piecemeal, gathered from a variety of sources and puzzled together arriving at a conclusion laced with pathos, unfulfilled desires and things unsaid.

The salt-sting of the sea air and its desolation are captured brilliantly by Angela Barrett�s majestic illustrations which evoke the wild untamed, atmosphere of the book with a raw, untamed power and grace that proves entirely equal to this haunting tale.


Looking for Enid

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Duncan McLaren
Portobello Books ltd
1846271150
Oct 2007
As well as being ubiquitous in the children�s literature field, Enid Blyton�s legacy has been highly influential. With around 8 million copies of her various titles sold annually and a body of work that embraces some seven-hundred-books, Blyton was and remains a true phenomenon in children�s publishing.

Purporting to guide readers through the �mysterious and inventive life of Enid Blyton�, Duncan McLaren�s �Looking for Enid� documents the geography that lay behind much of her life and attempts to place this in context of her work. The major initial problem with this line of thinking is that the hypothesis it posits is reliant upon the weight of emphasis and significance that McLaren places upon particular works and characters at the exclusion of others that are in contravention of his pre-defined ideologies, making this a curiously single-sided work. Only those out of the many tunnels and secret passages that fit with McLaren�s slightly aslant psycho-analytic reading, only those towers which fit with the autobiographical detail he feels permeates the works are granted accord, the remainder meanwhile are dismissed.

In spite of this, parts of McLaren�s work are revelatory and parts of his research � where it is grounded and does not involve flirtatious theorising that seems to serve its apparent primary purpose, the titillation of his travelling companion Kate � are to be applauded. This, however, is too dilute and embedded within too much supposition to be of major interest.

With the literary equivalent of a nervous-twitch, McLaren appropriates Blyton�s characters and lives out parts of his own thoughts, feelings and desires and those that he projects upon Blyton herself. This occurs most inappropriately when Enid and first husband Hugh have an imagined bed-time conversation as rabbits, Binkle and Flip discussing the hope for a fully-developed uterus� �Oh, it wouldn�t have to be a fully developed one. Not an arterial road running right through me! But perhaps I could wish for the uerus of an 18-year-old girl. Do you think that would be too much to ask for?� It becomes hard not to recoil!

Blyton�s position within the children�s literature world and the sheer mass of work she produced means that further consideration � and that which travels beyond the shifting trends and tectonics of political correctness � is needed, but this title is unequal to that. Barbara Stoney�s official biography is far more engaging, more precisely written and of lasting interest than the current work.

Portobello must be praised for the high-production values on this work, however, whether the self-indulgent content in its current form warranted publication is certainly questionable.




From Where I Stand

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Tabitha Suzuma
The Bodley Head
0370329066
May 2007
Tabitha Suzuma has the rare skill to breathe such life and motivation into her characters that they burn bright and indelibly upon the brain. In �From Where I Stand�, Raven is suffering severe trauma that drives a wedge between himself and others. His resultant vulnerability leads to his being taunted at school.

Raven�s grief, despair and guilt moves through stages as the novel progresses. He denies the reality of what has happened, weaving around himself a protective film of lies and half-truths. Though the stigma of mental health problems are encountered through the levels of misunderstanding and of miscomprehension that surround Raven, the mind is depicted here as resilient, strong and in a process of renewal and of resolution.

Suzuma�s willingness to draw from a reservoir of biographical experience to colour her characters with credibility makes this a courageous novel and, in an age when one in four people experience mental health problems throughout their lives, a highly worthwhile and contemporaneous one also.



The Dying Game

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Catherine Johnson
Oxford University Press
019275498X
Apr 2007
Cultural expectations and prejudices are brought to the fore in Catherine Johnson�s pithy new novel �The Dying Game�. Shehana makes a promise to a dying prostitute that she will contact the girls brother, a decision that exposes her to a sinister underbelly of drugs, lies and the abusage of trust.

Against this backdrop, Shehana herself, a Londoner with Bangladeshi family ties, rallies against the fast-approaching marriage that her family feel is so timely but that represent a very real blockade to the future she herself aspires towards and her desire to enter higher education.

Race assumptions are constantly subverted and just what it means to belong to a particular group and to identify ourselves within a specific set of cultural and social ideologies is probed incisively with by Johnson. This is a gripping thriller, with rich writing that envelops and engages from start to finish and that reveals the dehumanising influences of viewing the body as object, distinct from mind and personality. In parts dark, in parts disturbing, this is a smart and sassy novel with a strongly defined sense of pace and of purpose. A relevant and resonant novel that is well worthy of promotion.



The Witness

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James Jauncey
Young Picador
0330447130
Aug 2007
Set in a none-too-distant future, the one-hundred-acre act has revolutionised land-ownership in Scotland inspiring riot and revolt. It is against this politicised backdrop that the novel opens with a tumultuous sense of drama and of pace. John witnesses carnage and inhumane destruction as he bids to make escape from one of presumed countless rural rebellions. Conscious of the danger that what he has seen has placed him in, he encounters Ninian a defenceless and seemingly traumatised child.

So begins a desperate plight to escape pursuers, to find sanctuary to seek assistance where available, but to be aware of the position and danger such a trust necessarily places himself and Ninian within.

Jauncey�s ending to the novel leaves the swathes of problems over the nature of land-ownership and possession open and poses the chilling question as to whether we are in fact now fighting for the political and philosophical space of childhood itself�




My So Called Life

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Joanna Nadin
Oxford University Press
0192755269
Jun 2007
Joanna Nadin has written a novel that forms a reaction against and indeed is the antithesis to the �teenage issue novel�. Astute and witty, comments about suburban, middle-class values ethics and world views abound in this uproariously funny page-turner.

Following the life and thoughts of Rachel Riley through a series of diary entries, the novel is similar in form and in feel to the Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison. A distinction exists, however, in that a more coherent thread of storylines and plots courses beneath the self-conscious, though rarely self-aware, diary entries of the protagonist.

Resolved that the current year truly will be her most dramatically tragic yet, Rachel is so focused upon this aim, she is unaware of the more irregular and surreal aspects of her life. Ascorbic and probing, writing so sharp and so pointed should carry a safety warning!




Dani's Diary

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Narinder Dhami
Corgi Yearling
0440867282
Jun 2007
Her mother�s marriage has wide repercussions for Dani who, against a changed familial context, begins to question her identity and position as an Anglo-Indian. Aware of the unfamiliar territory that now surrounds her granddaughter, Dani�s grandmother bestows upon her the gift of a diary that documents her migration from India to England in the 1960s. Written in Punjabi, this presents a challenge for Dani, who must utilise her second language to glean from her grandmother�s experiences and the friendship she forged with the maligned Milly whose mischief it transpires had quite another root�

Narinda Dhami has a definite ear for dialogue and a keenly astute eye for social interaction resulting in prose that is witty, wise and a genuine delight. Analogies between changes that have affected past and present generations and an ability to reach a resolve for past misdemeanours and misconceptions make for a thought-provoking and satisfying read.




The Stuff of Nightmares

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Michael Morpurgo
Doubleday
0385610432
Oct 2007
As much as Kyle�s physical journey is curtailed within �The Stuff of Nightmares�, he nonetheless follows a definite path, one that leads from inexperience through various manifestations of uncertainty to an eventual awareness and understanding that culminates with him unencumbered and able to lead his life again. Complex and convincing character development of this type constitutes one of Malorie Blackman�s major strengths as an author.

Following the separation of his mother and father, Kyle has become socially withdrawn. Embarking upon a class trip, the train that Kyle and his peers are on is de-railed and hangs precariously between safety and danger, life and death, for all those on board.

One of the few individuals conscious on the train, Kyle finds that he is able to experience at first hand the dreams � and thereby the fears, guilt and neuroses � that his fellow passengers are subject to�

Large questions regarding, faith, belief, reality, truth, preordination and psych-kinesis are stimulated and are constantly brought to the fore as the narrative pace races through a total of thirteen nightmares told in a frame-setting.

Blackman depicts horror at its most chilling and efficacious through drawing the shades of darkness from sources identifiable to the everyman. The personal base to several of the dream described makes this a brave work, its considered nature and seriousness of intent ensuring it is, at once, in equal parts worthwhile.




The Mozart Question

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Michael Morpurgo
Walker Books
1406306487
Nov 2007
Following a colleagues misfortunes on the ski-slopes, journalist Lesley McInley is enlisted to interview the world famous concert violinist, Paulo Levi. Inexperienced and somewhat intimidated by the magnitude of the task facing her, Lesley feels inadequate, however, Paulo embarks upon explaining the extraordinary tale of how he discovered his love for the violin.

The strands of a story that spans three separate generations are woven together expertly by Michael Morpurgo and chart life prior to, during and following the Holocaust. Far from explicit, the atrocities of the period are concealed beneath the urgent attempts of Paulo Levi�s parents� to survive.

High culture and barbarism are played out against one another emphasising the tragedy and extent and magnitude of the history that underpins this fiction. Subtle reference to this is made as Morpurgo draws a wide geographic base around his characters that are thrown together, pulled apart and eventually drawn back to one another through the nature of all they have seen and heard.

The power of art to heal and foster understanding is explored and manifested in this quiet, contemplative work.



Cows In Action: The Ter-moo-nators

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Steve Cole
Red Fox
1862301891
May 2007
Anarchic wit and inventiveness are shaken (not stirred!) to perfection in Steve Cole�s latest series, �Cows in Action�. A herd of agents and adversaries play out the action and adventures from the base of a time-travelling cowshed, invented by the bullishly brilliant Professor McMoo.

This first story sees the cattle careering back to Tudor times where they must foil the Ter-moo-nator�s attempts to install a cow-counterpart in place of Henry VIII�s fourth wife, Anne of Cleaves.

Milking the thrills of time-travel alongside the spills of a history, plotted to have gone somewhat awry, this series presents bovines at their brilliant best kowtowing to none and to nothing.



Eggs

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Jerry Spinelli
Orchard
1846166993
Aug 2007
Nine year old David�s mother has died in a recent freak accident. He now lives with his grandmother as, having pushed himself firm into the throes of work as a means for coping and survival, his father appears too busy to look after him.

Keen to see David with others of his own age, his grandmother insists on his attending an egg hunt over Easter. Caught in a reverie, David instead begins looking the woods and finds an egg in the mouth of what he believes to be a dead body.

Through a series of false-starts, trust and mistrust, David is befriended by the thirteen-year-old Primrose who has no dad and a neglectful, eccentric, fortune-telling mother. Realism and surrealism interweave to concoct a heady memorable rites-of-passage narrative whereby neither David nor Primrose feel complete, happy or entirely understood and supported.

Spinelli�s understated narrative brings the two together as friends whose bonds are robust and rigorous. A moving account of the way we each of us depend upon others even at those times when we endeavour to assert our independence most stridently.



The Boy with the Magic Numbers & The Invisible Boy

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Sally Gardner
Orion Children's Books
1842556134
Jun 2007
Sally Gardner has a knack for taking the ordinary and the seemingly mundane and transforming this into the extraordinary and the unexpectedly magical. Her �Magical Children� sequence has seen all manner of children bestowed with skills and abilities that empower them to rise up from the difficulties they face in their respective home-lives.

Orion Children�s books have produced a bind-up of �The boy with magic numbers�, where a gift from his father enables protagonist Billy to predict number sequences with remarkable proficiency leading him to solve numerous numerical conundrams and ultimately to become embroiled in trying to rescue son of a millionaire, Walter Minks Junior, from kidnappers. Positive attitude and furthermore the desire to utilise skills responsively build through a succession of twists, turns, plots and sub-plots to a thoroughly heartening climax.

Flipping the book provides readers with the opportunity to read the story of �The Invisible Boy�. When Sam�s parents win a trip to the moon., the appropriately named Mrs Hardbottom, the family�s nextdoor neighbour, offers to look after him. This allows Gardner to achieve one of the archetypes of children�s literature, the child alone, conquering adversity. Salvation from the harsh treatment Sam suffers at the hand of Mrs Hardbottom arrives in a salad-spinner in the form of Splodge, an alien, whose patch makes Sam invisible, thereby initiating a series of... and reversing the adage that children should be seen and not heard.

These are sedate stories feeling almost as though they are from an age ago, in spite of these, or more properly, because of this, they retain a sense of wonder, magic and awe that makes life feel fuller and more flavoursome. Sally Gardner taps into the dream consciousness of children � and adults(!) � everywhere in these two timeless tales.

What makes these books so special and so clever is the sense in which they are thoroughly recognisable and set in an everyday environment that readers are instantly able to feel an affinity towards. Whilst magic influences gives levels of guidance to the child protagonists that lie at each story�s centre, that magic is skilfully utilised by Gardner as a means for developing a resilience and an increased sense of engagement with the world that surrounds them.



Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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J. K. Rowling
Bloomsbury
0747591059
Jul 2007

Critical comment surrounding �Harry Potter� has increasingly failed to distinguish between popularity and content. The brand has become testament to the technologies and communications that have rendered popular culture as globalised. Commentary has focused around a rigid mythology surrounding its creator and creation rather than pinioning itself to the books themselves.

In establishing the ground-plan and layout for the final book, previous titles have worked towards determining this as a cataclysmic wrangling between good � personified via Harry Potter � and evil � manifested through Voldemort in an epic battle that sends quakes of fear and impending danger through the whole of the wizard and non-wizard worlds alike.

With the exception of the opening of the novel, the impending doom, however, never feels to be significant, or indeed to exert itself on anyone other than a minor clique. Sentimentalism and sensation have removed the edge from this particular brand of danger.

Genetic inheritance and race underpin the whole of Voldemort�s philosophies and are structured as the backbone that affords Voldemort�s evil a level of intent and thereby of plausibility. Failure to engage with this and a reticence to draw deeply from oblique thematic reference to Hitler�s �Final Solution� make the concluding episode of the �Harry Potter� books flaccid shackling Voldemort to the position of a pantomime villain. As readers, we may �boo�, we may �hiss�, but there will be few that are chilled to the bones by result of the 'what if' as without root or foundation many of the blurrings between good and evil that Rowling has outlined are degraded

Magic is as much a convenience as it is an integral part of a plausible culture and community. Delineations between the magic and non-magic world are shifting with squibs, mudbloods (or the more euphemistic term �Muggle-borns� � although this itself appears a derisory reference towards those lacking potential and ability, more so than non-wizards at least). Distinctions are rarely explained and so cohesion to the fundamental premise of this fantasy world is eroded.

Characterisation and development through the series is highly limited, restricted to a series of gropes and fumbles � abhorrent stereotyping of adolescence - that allegedly symbolise the ascent towards physical and mental maturation.

If the paucity of �Pottermania� is indeed, truly a gauge of our reading culture, nationally, perhaps we should all be concerned that one series should, alone, have attained such breadth of focus in a country that annually publishes upwards of 10,500 books and that the 'magic' of the literary inheritance for the inhabitants of this sceptred isle is a world - like that of Hogwarts - unattainable for so many...